At the turn of the century, Wonder Boys snuck into our cinematic consciousness through its sheer quirkiness and excellent casting and still gets a lot of DVD screenings in many homes. Later in the decade, another film gave it a go in the same location and genre, Smart People.
Why is it that actors who have made a decent living as leading men want to take roles where they look like crap, struggle with books in serious need of editing, and end up living in Pittsburgh?
The point is that the movies that Dennis Quaid and Michael Douglas chose for their post-hunk lives want us to believe that they’re really smart guys who, basically, can’t quite seem to dress themselves after their wives have gone. My wife is still sticking with me so far, but I think maybe, after seeing these movies, she’s just worried that if she leaves I’ll trash her reputation with my fashion choices.
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Smart People gives us Dennis Quaid as a really grumpy professor who, after the death of his wife (yes, that again) is trying not-so-successfully to hold his family together. He plays Lawrence Wetherhold who specializes in Victorian literature and being a pretentious, arrogant and pompous pain-in-the-ass — and he’s very good at that, I should say. Fortunately, Quaid is surrounded by a great ensemble of actors that includes Thomas Haden Church, Sarah Jessica Parker and Ellen Page. All of them play seriously messed up people, too, but only Church pulls it off spectacularly. His stoner “adopted” brother is so damn funny without trying — it’s his best role since Sideways. The plot, such as it is, moves erratically along a path that is not very surprising — Quaid’s Wetherhold will try to get over his lost wife, his kids will be damaged and say mean things to him and each other, the loser brother will prove invaluable, and the girl who can’t possibly replace the wife, naturally, will.
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The Defending Champion
You have to hand it to Michael Douglas for having the guts to play Grady Trip in Wonder Boys. After a series of movies where he was actually reported to have a 28-inch waist, Douglas shows off his shabby side here and actually is seen more than once in a fuzzy pink woman’s bathrobe. Now that’s acting! This film was based on a book by Michael Chabon (great) and was adapted by Steve Kloves and directed by Curtis Hanson coming off L.A. Confidential. It’s a shambling affair that moves in surprising ways, never quite letting you know what’s going to happen next. Another great set of actors pass through this film: notably, Robert Downey Jr., Tobey Maguire, Frances McDormand and, even, Mrs. Tom Cruise. The plot involves a long-overdue novel, the accidental murder of a dog, a gay book agent who preys on transexuals or college boys with equal abandon, and all the insecurities of writing and trying to live up to people’s expectations.
The first five minutes of Smart People rank as among the worst first five minutes of any movie I’ve seen in years. Every character seems lame and hateful. It was so bad that my wife bolted from the theater. She sat this one out and snuck into Baby Mama across the cineplex. Dennis Quaid’s character is such an a-hole in so many ways that my wife’s despair was completely reasonable. If I didn’t have this Smackdown in the back of my mind, I’d probably have joined her. The film, although predictable, does rally as it continues and even though it doesn’t surprise, on more than a few levels it still manages to satisfy, sorta.
Both Wonder Boys and Smart People have marijuana scenes in them, and the way they are handled tells you a lot about the tone of the two films. In Smart People, Church’s character gets his 17-year-old niece (played by Page) stoned. Nothing much comes of it, except that it is shorthand for his “let it roll” persona and allows her “young republican” to relax a little. We’ve seen it before in dozens of films. In Wonder Boys, however, Michael Douglas’s Grady Trip actually has a marijuana problem. He’s getting high all the time, using it to hide from truths that need to be faced, and it’s interfering with his life. It means something beside a quick smile.
Another thing that both films have in common are performances by the supporting actors that steal the oxygen from the scenes they’re in. Church’s stoner and Downy’s gay lech both compel your attention every time they are on screen.
In Wonder Boys, Hannah Green (played by Katie Holmes) has a crush on Grady Tripp whom she idolizes, and Tripp rightly discourages her interest. In Smart People, the same dynamic exists between Vanessa Wetherhold (Ellen Page) and her uncle Chuck (Thomas Haden Church), who also discourages her romantic interest.
Yes, both films are strongly acted to be sure. Still, praising a film because it has good actors is a little like praising a film because it has good cinematography. It’s important and powerful if the film justifies it, but good emoting and pretty pictures have to happen in the service of a greater cause to really mean something.
When this Smackdown was first posted, one of our readers, Richard Bates, commented: Smart People amounts to a kind of creative plagiarism: the “grammar and syntax” of the film have been altered but the elements have been taken from someone else’s more original work. Smart People also seems student-like in that it’s clearly derivative, something like the sort of assignment a student of music might be given: “Write a tone poem in the style of Benjamin Britten.” It’s a great way to learn, but if you haven’t come up with something new, it seems artistically immodest to pass it off as original work.
Wow, I thought. Beautifully said.
Smart People is a disposable film that’s not worth your dollars at the box office. Writer Mark Poirier has given us a world that thinks it’s filled with ironic insights, but there’s a lot less there than he thinks there is, and first time director Noam Murro clearly never takes it to a new level. Dennis Quaid has to carry this film, but the unlikability of his character sinks even his strong talent. In stark contrast, Wonder Boys is complex, charming and meaningful and gives up more of its meaning with every new viewing. If you haven’t seen it, do so now, and even if you already have had the pleasure, think about a repeat to see what you missed the first time around. It’s Wonder Boys in an early knockout.